The Obama Administration has released a redacted version of the “drone playbook” which outlines the federal government’s policy on drone strikes.
Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), sometimes known as “the Playbook” or disposition matrix, which guides the Obama Administration’s decisions on the U.S. government’s drone assassination program. The PPG was originally released in May 2013, but the full content of the document has remained a secret. The public has only ever seen a “fact sheet” that describes the document.
In February, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon ordered the Obama Administration to hand over the PPG and other documents related to the targeted drone assassination program for the court’s review and possible release to the public. The three documents relate to the law and policy that govern the controversial program. The ruling came as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has also been fighting to uncover new information related to the so-called Presidential Kill List, also known as the disposition matrix.
The Washington Post first reported on the disposition matrix in 2012:
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the ‘disposition matrix.’
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.
After initially fighting the release of the full document, the federal government decided it would not fight to keep the entire PPG a secret, but instead would release a redacted version for public viewing. The PPG and several other documents were handed over to the ACLU on Friday. Courthouse News reports:
The redacted drone-strike “playbook” says that strikes may be used against terrorist targets when there is “near certainty that a lawful target is present,” “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed,” and when the “target poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
President Barack Obama’s approval is required when drone strikes target a U.S. citizen or when administrative officials disagree on whether a non-American target should be killed.
“If the principal of the nominating operating agency, after review by principals and deputies, continues to support the operational plan, the plan shall be presented to the president for decision, along with the views expressed by departments and agencies during the [National Security Council] process,” the PPG states.
“An appropriate [National Security Staff] official will communicate, in writing, the president’s decision, including any terms or conditions placed on any approval to appropriate departments and agencies.”
“The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government’s counterterrorism policies. The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of the powers that will soon be in the hands of another president,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU Deputy Legal Director.
One particularly interesting aspect of the PPG is that the document is unique in the sense that it is the only one of its kind. “Obama’s normal practice when issuing national security orders has been to release “Presidential Policy Directives,” a set of numbered directives that occasionally get released publicly,” writes The New Republic. “The word ‘Guidance’ would suggest this is a weaker kind of order than a ‘Directive.’”
The Obama administration also released a Department of Defense document from 2014 which explains how the administration defines “associated forces” that are targeted with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The groups who are targeted were redacted in the release.
Despite the new details about the drone program, the ACLU remains skeptical. Brett Max Kaufman, Staff Attorney with the ACLU Center for Democracy, says“too much remains secret about the program, including where the PPG actually applies, what its general standards mean in practice, and how evidence that those standards have been met is evaluated—in addition to who the government is killing, and where.”
The fight for details on the PPG is only one aspect of the fight for transparency as it relates to the U.S. government’s drone program. For the last four years, New York Times journalist Charlie Savage has waged a legal battle against the Obama administration, seeking to reveal the government’s legal justifications for assassinating terror suspects without a trial. Specifically, Savage sued the Obama administration in an attempt to obtain details about the murder of al-Qaeda affiliated cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and eventually found himself on the U.S. government’s radar under suspicion of terrorism.
On September 30, 2011, drones sent by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command flew into Yemen and bombed al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan. The case drew public criticism not only because al-Awlaki was an American citizen, but because several weeks after his death, another American drone killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman. He was also a U.S. citizen living in Yemen.
A 2014 ruling by Second Circuit court forced the release of a memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel which relates to drone assassinations. The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union fought for the release of 11 other OLC memos, but the court protected 10 of them from release. The Times and the ACLU appealed the decision, but a three-judge panel from the Second Circuit recently denied the release of the documents.
Despite the American public’s lack of knowledge on the use of drone warfare, the U.S. government is not showing any signs of slowing down their Drone War. With only a few months left in office, President Obama is poised to hand over the title of the Drone King (or Queen) to a new president. What will the next occupant of the Oval Office do with the power to assassinate “the enemies of America”?
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist and liberty activist. He is the Lead Investigative Reporter for ActivistPost.com and the founder of the TheConsciousResistance.com. Follow him on Twitter. Derrick is the author of two books: The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy and Spirituality and Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion.
Derrick is available for interviews. Please contact Derrick@activistpost.com
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